I started teaching adult ESL classes at a local community college a few weeks ago. The biggest surprise was the diversity of the students—not so much because it was an ethnically diverse classroom, which it is, but diverse in the kinds of people I normally interact with. My students are the people who are usually invisible in my world. They clean houses and businesses at night. They decorate donuts. They landscape, build decks, lay tile, paint, or decorate donuts. Some work in Wal-mart or stock grocery shelves—and they’re not bright faced teens working to pay car insurance.
Being in a college town, I tend to hang out with white anglo-saxon college-educated people. They are teachers, doctors, writers, high-level government workers, bankers, insurance agents, filmmakers, web designers. Those are the jobs you expect to hear about at local party chit-chat. Now that I spend a few hours a day away from this group, I see what a cultural bubble it is.
Though there was initial wonder at the “strange” professions of the students, they are engaging people, and the mysteries of fast-food prep, house cleaning, and immigration are just as interesting as any of my regular friends’ occupational stories—- probably, more so, given their adventure of leaving home country and family to make it on the mean streets of the USA. They are bona-fide risk takers. What they’ve done and why; their hopes and dreams are pretty compelling; their lives full of dangers unknown by me and most of my suburban friends.
You don’t think of that when you brush by the maid in the hotel corridor, or the painting crew having lunch on somebody’s lawn. You don’t think about that when working late at the office, and a guy walks by pushing a vacuum.
These people are not invisible to me now. I make an effort to say hello. Talk about the weather or something and recognize their existence as more than a piece of furniture without much effect on the world.